Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ron Brownstein

The GOP’s Political Reconstruction Project

Like most political analysts, I’m of the view that the GOP will do well, and maybe very well, in the 2014 mid-term elections. (Demographics usually favor Republicans in such elections, when voters tend to be older and whiter.) I believe, too, that Hillary Clinton has shown herself to be an average political talent who carries a fair amount of baggage. Add to that the fact that the country will presumably be tired of Mr. Obama and his party and looking for a change in course. 

Yet despite all this, I agree with Bill Kristol. At this moment, he wrote, “Republicans seem likely to win in 2014 and to lose in 2016.”

Having laid out the basis for my views before, I decided to amass additional data to underscore them. In this instance, the data is based on a memorandum by Doug Sosnik, a Democratic political strategist who was a close adviser to Bill Clinton. The memo was recently posted at Politico Magazine. Mr. Sosnik is a partisan, but the data he relies on for his analysis strikes me as sound – and for Republicans, alarming. The information below is taken in large part, but not exclusively, from the Sosnik article. 

The Blue Wall

In each of the past six presidential elections, Democrats have carried 18 states and the District of Columbia—which currently total 242 electoral votes—as base states, leaving them only 28 votes short of the 270 necessary to win the White House. Ron Brownstein of National Journal notes, “The blue wall encompasses the 11 states from Maryland to Maine (except New Hampshire); the three West Coast states; and Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Hawaii (plus the District of Columbia).” Brownstein points out that Democrats have won another 15 electoral votes (in Iowa, New Hampshire, and New Mexico) in five of the last six elections.

Three of these base states—California, New York, and Illinois—alone total 104 electoral votes. Even when Republicans have won, their ceiling of electoral votes has been relatively low, leaving them a very small margin for error. Since 1988, no Republican candidate has managed to secure 300 electoral votes in a single election. 

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Like most political analysts, I’m of the view that the GOP will do well, and maybe very well, in the 2014 mid-term elections. (Demographics usually favor Republicans in such elections, when voters tend to be older and whiter.) I believe, too, that Hillary Clinton has shown herself to be an average political talent who carries a fair amount of baggage. Add to that the fact that the country will presumably be tired of Mr. Obama and his party and looking for a change in course. 

Yet despite all this, I agree with Bill Kristol. At this moment, he wrote, “Republicans seem likely to win in 2014 and to lose in 2016.”

Having laid out the basis for my views before, I decided to amass additional data to underscore them. In this instance, the data is based on a memorandum by Doug Sosnik, a Democratic political strategist who was a close adviser to Bill Clinton. The memo was recently posted at Politico Magazine. Mr. Sosnik is a partisan, but the data he relies on for his analysis strikes me as sound – and for Republicans, alarming. The information below is taken in large part, but not exclusively, from the Sosnik article. 

The Blue Wall

In each of the past six presidential elections, Democrats have carried 18 states and the District of Columbia—which currently total 242 electoral votes—as base states, leaving them only 28 votes short of the 270 necessary to win the White House. Ron Brownstein of National Journal notes, “The blue wall encompasses the 11 states from Maryland to Maine (except New Hampshire); the three West Coast states; and Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Hawaii (plus the District of Columbia).” Brownstein points out that Democrats have won another 15 electoral votes (in Iowa, New Hampshire, and New Mexico) in five of the last six elections.

Three of these base states—California, New York, and Illinois—alone total 104 electoral votes. Even when Republicans have won, their ceiling of electoral votes has been relatively low, leaving them a very small margin for error. Since 1988, no Republican candidate has managed to secure 300 electoral votes in a single election. 

Women and the GOP

Women now constitute 53 percent of all voters. In the last two presidential elections, women supported Barack Obama over the Republican nominee by double digits. While the president lost by 10 percentage points among independents in Ohio, for example, he won by 12 points among women in the state—and carried Ohio. 

The Youth Vote and the GOP

In 2012, Obama won the youth vote by 23 points—60 percent to 37 percent. In 1992, Democrats won the youth vote by 9 points; in 1996, by 19 points; in 2000, by two points; in 2004, by 13 points; and in 2008 by 34 points.

Right now, young voters constitute 25.5 percent of the eligible electorate, a figure that will rise to 36.5 percent by 2020. And a recent Pew report found that only 17 percent of millennials currently identify themselves as Republicans.

Minorities and the GOP

In 2012, 88 percent of Mitt Romney’s support came from white voters. Yet over the past quarter century, as the non-white share of the population has expanded, the white share of the vote for president has steadily declined, falling from 87 percent in 1992 to 72 percent in 2012.

Mitt Romney lost the non-white vote to Barack Obama by 63 points.

Asian-Americans voted for Obama over Romney 73 percent to 26 percent after backing him against John McCain 62 to 35. President Obama also won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012. The Pew Hispanic Center projects that by 2030, 40 million Hispanics will be eligible to vote—up from 27 million today. Since George W. Bush’s 2004 election, Hispanic voters have abandoned the Republican Party in droves (Bush won 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004). Indeed, since the 2004 election, Republicans have steadily lost ground among women voters, Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, and youth.

Public Perceptions of the GOP

A March ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 68 percent of respondents believe that the Republican Party is out of touch with the concerns of most people today. Only 28 percent say it’s in touch with the concerns of most Americans. 

I highlight these matters not because they are the only way to interpret the political landscape these days. Nor do I believe a GOP presidential victory in 2016 is anything like out of the question. I call attention to these data instead to point out to Republicans their substantial intellectual and outreach deficit, even while President Obama is down in the polls and even if they do well in November.  

It’s an undeniable empirical truth that the GOP coalition is shrinking, and it’s shrinking in the aftermath of two fairly decisive defeats, with the latter coming against a president whose policies were judged by many Americans to have been failures. Which means the Republican task isn’t simply to nominate a candidate who can fire up the base; it is to find principled conservative leaders who can win over voters who are not now voting for the GOP at the presidential level. This requires putting forward a governing vision and agenda that is reform-minded and modernizing, that speaks to the purposes of government and not just its size, that aligns itself with the challenges of the 21st century, and that persuades Americans who are not traditional Republicans.

The GOP, in other words, is engaged in a fairly serious political reconstruction project. Democrats did this with Bill Clinton and the British Labour Party did this with Tony Blair. The burning political question facing Republicans is whether they will make the changes necessary to appeal to an America very different than the one that existed a generation ago.

They’ll go some distance toward answering that question over the course of the next two years.

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From King Canute to a Cork in the Ocean

White House political adviser David Axelrod granted an interview to Ron Brownstein of National Journal that qualifies as either hyper-spin or an almost clinical state of denial. For example, Axelrod tells Brownstein, “It’s almost impossible to win a referendum on yourself. And the Republicans would like this to be a referendum. It’s not going to be a referendum.”

Yes it will. When a political party controls the presidency and, by wide margins, the House and the Senate, the midterm election will be a referendum on the stewardship of that party. There’s no way to get around that. What’s particularly revealing is that Axelrod and his colleagues, rather than welcoming a referendum on their year in office, are terribly afraid of it. They know that if the dominant issues of the 2010 midterm election are how well Democrats have governed, they will absorb tremendous damage.

Axelrod makes this point in a slightly different way when he says:

If the question is what we’ve been able to achieve, which I think is substantial, versus the ideal of what people hope for or hoped for, that’s a harder race for us. If the choice is between the things we’ve achieved and we’re fighting for and what the other side would deliver, I think that’s very motivational to people.

In other words, if people measure us against perfection, we will fall short. But people won’t be measuring Obama and Democrats against perfection; they will be measuring him/them against the standards Obama set up — for example, insisting that unemployment would not exceed 8 percent in 2009 (it is now 10 percent); that the stimulus package would “create or save” 3.5 million jobs over the course of two years (2.8 million jobs have been lost since it was signed into law); that the deficit and debt would go down on his watch (Obama’s budget will double the debt in five years and triple it in 10 years); and so forth. Read More

White House political adviser David Axelrod granted an interview to Ron Brownstein of National Journal that qualifies as either hyper-spin or an almost clinical state of denial. For example, Axelrod tells Brownstein, “It’s almost impossible to win a referendum on yourself. And the Republicans would like this to be a referendum. It’s not going to be a referendum.”

Yes it will. When a political party controls the presidency and, by wide margins, the House and the Senate, the midterm election will be a referendum on the stewardship of that party. There’s no way to get around that. What’s particularly revealing is that Axelrod and his colleagues, rather than welcoming a referendum on their year in office, are terribly afraid of it. They know that if the dominant issues of the 2010 midterm election are how well Democrats have governed, they will absorb tremendous damage.

Axelrod makes this point in a slightly different way when he says:

If the question is what we’ve been able to achieve, which I think is substantial, versus the ideal of what people hope for or hoped for, that’s a harder race for us. If the choice is between the things we’ve achieved and we’re fighting for and what the other side would deliver, I think that’s very motivational to people.

In other words, if people measure us against perfection, we will fall short. But people won’t be measuring Obama and Democrats against perfection; they will be measuring him/them against the standards Obama set up — for example, insisting that unemployment would not exceed 8 percent in 2009 (it is now 10 percent); that the stimulus package would “create or save” 3.5 million jobs over the course of two years (2.8 million jobs have been lost since it was signed into law); that the deficit and debt would go down on his watch (Obama’s budget will double the debt in five years and triple it in 10 years); and so forth.

Mr. Axelrod also tells Brownstein that next on his checklist is “finish this health care bill successfully.” And after that? “Then we have to go out and sell it. I think we can run on this.”

The problem is that the president has been trying to “sell” ObamaCare for more than half a year. He has spoken out on its behalf repeatedly and in every forum imaginable. And the more Obama attempts to sell the Democrats’ health-care plan, the more unpopular it becomes. After a prolonged and intense debate on this issue, here’s what they have to show for it: “The president’s marks on handling health care, with reforms still under debate in Congress, are even lower [than his overall job approval rating of 46 percent] — just 36 percent approve, while 54 percent disapprove,” according to the latest CBS News poll. “Both of these approval ratings are the lowest of Mr. Obama’s presidency.”

If Axelrod and the Obama White House really believe the problem here is with their sales job rather than with the product they are trying to sell, then they are living in an alternative universe. ObamaCare is responsible in large measure for the devastating Democratic losses in the Virginia and New Jersey governors races. The political environment is so bad right now that even Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat is viewed by Republicans and Democrats as endangered. This is a remarkable political development.

Finally, Mr. Axelrod says this:

In certain ways we are at the mercy of forces that are larger than things we can control. If we see steady months of jobs growth between now and next November, I think the picture will be different than if we don’t. I think Ronald Reagan learned that lesson in 1982. We’re not immune to the physics of all of this. But I’m guardedly optimistic that we are going to see that progress.

Here’s a pretty good rule of thumb: when senior White House political advisers begin to use phrases like “we are at the mercy of forces that are larger than we can control” and “we’re not immune to the physics of all this,” you can assume they are in deep trouble. That is especially the case for those who work for a president who proclaimed that his victory would mark the moment “when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

Now Obama and Axelrod portray themselves like corks in the ocean. They invoke the laws of physics to explain why unemployment is in double digits. It turns out it is a quick journey from political messianism to political fatalism.

Axelrod’s words are a revealing (if unwitting) concession: he and his colleagues understand that they are overmatched by events and, in office for less than a year, they are scrambling to find excuses for the problems they face. But the fault, dear David, is not in the stars, but in yourselves. There will be a high political price to pay for this — perhaps starting next week but almost certainly by next November.

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Doomed if They Do, Doomed if They Don’t?

The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein pours through the data and concludes “a difficult 2010 election for Democrats could turn catastrophic.” My own view is that if Democrats pass health-care legislation — and the most recent CNN poll shows that only 36 percent favor the Senate bill, while 61 percent oppose it (79 percent said the bill would increase the deficit, and 85 percent said the bill would increase their taxes) — it will make that outcome more, not less, likely.

ObamaCare is one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation we have seen in quite a long time; it borders on being radioactive. It also happens to be what Democrats, including Obama, are pinning their political hopes to. It is an amazing predicament Democrats find themselves in: they will suffer if they don’t pass health-care legislation; and they may well suffer more if they do.

The heady days of early 2009 have given way to deep concern as Democrats look to 2010. As some of us warned when the president took office and Obama was viewed as a demigod by many in the political class, governing is harder than campaigning. But we didn’t imagine it would be quite this hard quite this soon.

The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein pours through the data and concludes “a difficult 2010 election for Democrats could turn catastrophic.” My own view is that if Democrats pass health-care legislation — and the most recent CNN poll shows that only 36 percent favor the Senate bill, while 61 percent oppose it (79 percent said the bill would increase the deficit, and 85 percent said the bill would increase their taxes) — it will make that outcome more, not less, likely.

ObamaCare is one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation we have seen in quite a long time; it borders on being radioactive. It also happens to be what Democrats, including Obama, are pinning their political hopes to. It is an amazing predicament Democrats find themselves in: they will suffer if they don’t pass health-care legislation; and they may well suffer more if they do.

The heady days of early 2009 have given way to deep concern as Democrats look to 2010. As some of us warned when the president took office and Obama was viewed as a demigod by many in the political class, governing is harder than campaigning. But we didn’t imagine it would be quite this hard quite this soon.

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